What Am I Bid For This Well Aged Bottle?

To buy vintage wines, auctions are the place to go

So you want to buy a special wine to celebrate the millennium. How about a double magnum of 1870 Chateau Lafite Rothschild? Unfortunately, similar thoughts have occurred to many other wine lovers, too. When Christie's auctioned a bottle of that rare Lafite in London this summer, it went for $44,000. At a Christie's auction in New York in June, select red Burgundies went for three times their top estimates.

Wine auctions are booming on both sides of the Atlantic, fueled not only by preparations for millennium celebrations this New Year's Eve but also by a strong economy and an easing of American laws on liquor sales. New auction houses are pouring into the field, challenging the dominance of market leaders Christie's and Sotheby's. Sales over the Internet should provide further stimulus. But while the major auction houses have sales scheduled for September, good buys are getting harder to find. "The market is hot," says Christopher Burr, Christie's director of wine sales.

REPEAL OF BAN. Rather than bidding for bargains, serious oenophiles are flocking to the auctions to search out "rarities more than 40 years old that no longer can be found in retail outlets," according to Lindsay Hamilton of Farr Vintners in London. Indeed, whether you're bidding in the salesroom or over the Internet, vintage Bordeaux continue to dominate the fine-wine trade, accounting for 65% of all auction sales. But younger California reds, such as Screaming Eagle and Colgin, are making more appearances. Christie's recently sold three bottles of 1994 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon for $3,335, up 389% from the wine's last sale. Italian, Spanish, and Australian wines are also edging their way onto the auction scene.

Today's hot market is a far cry from that of only a few years ago. New York State actually used to forbid liquor auctions, but since the ban was repealed in 1994, New York has become the world's wine-auction capital. As interest in wine auctions soars, competition is driving commissions down. Sotheby's and Christie's, among traditional auctioneers, charge both buyer and seller 10% of the price. But one newcomer--Acker Merrall & Condit, a New York liquor store--charges only the buyer. It is also offering wines that are less rare and lower-priced than those at Sotheby's or Christie's. Says Acker President John Kapon: "Not everyone can spend 10 grand in an hour."

Last spring, Acker hooked up with LiveBid.com, an Amazon.com subsidiary, to hold a real-time Internet wine auction. Even though the computer system broke down, $600,000 worth of bottles were sold. Now, Sotheby's and Christie's are considering online auctions. Web auction giant eBay, which owns Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco, an auction house that handles fine-wine sales, plans to announce an aGgressive wine-auction strategy soon. But many states still bar individuals from receiving wine by mail.

Before you bid, remember that in some cases, it can be cheaper to forgo an auction altogether and buy at retail. London dealer Hamilton, for example, sells cases of 1982 Petrus for $17,000, while recent auction prices have gone as high as $22,500. Still, if you're looking for that special bottle to grace your cellar or cap a millennium gala, auctions remain the way to go.

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